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Plans for my 2017 trip were constantly changing. A tragic accident in the area of Pingzhuang, with the deaths of over 30 miners resulted in a temporary closure of all of the region's deep mines, some of which were unlicensed, for government safety inspections. This suspended rail operations at Pingzhuang until further notice. Meanwhile, a lack of coal wagons arriving from China Rail at Wujiu, resulted in almost no traffic. So instead of visiting the above, I decided on a visit to Diaobingshan (Tiefa) to visit its tenth annual steam festival from 6th to 8th January, where a six-coach passenger train was topped and tailed by SY1770 and SY1772. The accompanying leaflet gives details of the lines used with the locations of the run passes and the timings each day. About 400 people participated and contributed to the running costs - a large neck tag being issued to each person as an easily identifiable contributor's ticket. A handful of Western and Japanese visitors took part.
The Chinese consisted of as many women as men and most were armed with the latest models of cameras and tripods. From a photographer's viewpoint, many were rather annoyingly clad in the brightest multicoloured day-glow clothing. A large number was rather too enthusiastic as they swarmed across tracks like ants during many run passes, with four hapless uniformed policemen only just managing to keep photographers at times literally only a couple of feet away from fast moving locomotives - one had the impression that they were trying to take pictures of the maker's date mark stamped into the locos' rivet heads! The weather was calm, dull and grey throughout the event with temperatures above freezing, all of which, together with the number of people jumping on and off the trains for run passes, did not make for great photography. However, the event was rather fun, especially for watching the emerging Chinese middle classes at play, many of whom focused their cameras from time to time to take many requested portrait shots of the 'exotic westerner' who had travelled so far to join them.
Onwards to Sandaoling (9th to 15th January), where steam operations could end in May this year. The decision is likely to be made on 8th/9th March by the mine's management, who are in a dilemma because the reported costs of extracting coal by road lorries are similar to those of using steam. In January, only two locos were in the workshop undergoing minor repairs (pit loco JS8197 in steam and south yard's JS8366). Locos working the pit, often at the rate of four loaded trains per hour, were JSs 8081, 8167, 8190, 8225, whereas 6204, 8053, 8314, 8358 were shunting in south yard and infrequently each day running across to the two deep mines, Nos. 1 and 2, at Beiquan - these latter may well continue to run beyond May. There seemed to be more deliveries of coal to the road wagon loading point this year although the number of trains to the washery remained high. On one occasion, a loco hauling a loaded train to the road dump unexpectedly dropped off at the workshop and made a few shunts of flat bed wagons around the workshop before picking up her train again. It was a lucky chance to happen to be in the right place at the right time to see it. The weather was not very clear with no views of the Barkol mountains. There were frequent snow flurries with lying snow in the pit for a day or two; I was informed that this was more typical of weather in the spring. Many more Chinese photographers appeared than is usual. Publicity in the national press about Sandaoling and the possible end of steam there has aroused interest with 'general' photographers informing me that they had travelled from as far as Peking, Shanghai and Urumchi. Not having experience of photographing steam and knowing the '"does and don'ts" many were clad, as at Tiefa, in brightly coloured day-glow clothes which clearly stood out at many hundreds of yards distance. A few quiet words of advice were offered, via Chinese guides, to ask them to try to hide themselves from wide view wherever possible.
photographs by Liu Xuejun and Nick Paton
Will steam survive beyond May? Let us hope that the many Chinese deities of the Middle Kingdom's many religions bestow their benevolence on our beloved locos and keep them running for a while longer.
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© 2017 Roger Croston, Liu Xuejun and Nick Paton